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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Do casinos need to identify advantage video poker players?

18 August 2021

I recently read about a product whose time -- if it ever had a time -- has come and gone. But first....

Everyone in the gaming industry knows John Acres' name, but I doubt if any players recognize it. Still they feel his influence on the slot floor every day.

In 1981 he developed the first player tracking system. In 1985 he co-founded Mikohn Gaming, which developed progressive jackpot systems. In 1992 a new company, Acres Gaming, developed the next generation of player tracking and bonus systems. Acres Technology aims to leave mark on gaming industry again

This is around the time when our paths first crossed. He was kind enough to answer my questions about how the programs in slot machines work. I was also able to attend a seminar he gave about his player tracking and bonusing system at what was then the big gaming show, the World Gaming Congress.

I remember one of the big innovations in his system was something they called Follow Me Points. At the time, some player tracking systems required you to play a certain number of coins before you could earn a point. The card readers in many casinos in Atlantic City displayed the number of coins you still needed to play before you would be awarded a point. If you pulled your card before completing the countdown, you lost all the progress you had made toward earning a point.

With Follow Me Points, every penny you played went toward earning points. You could switch machines as much as you liked and earn points on all of your play.

It's somewhat tragic that we've lost this progress in some new slot clubs. When Boyd changed its slot club a few years ago, your tier level in the club went from being based solely on action to being based on action and game played. Slot players could move to upper tiers more quickly than video poker players because slot games required fewer dollars played to earn a tier credit. Even worse for video poker players, the amount of action required to earn a tier credit was tied to the long-term payback of the paytable -- the better the paytable, the more dollars required.

I was at Gold Coast with Jean Scott shortly after the new club went live and players had figured out the tier credit situation. One of her disciples said to her, "I went to the club booth and told them I didn't like the new system and I'm not going to play here as much in the future."

I thought, "That's pretty much the idea."

The casino was saying, "Don't expect our best offers if you're going to play our best games. We're going to give more to players who are worth more to us."

One consequence of the new tier credit system is if you pull your card -- or switch games on a multi-game machine -- you lose the progress you had made toward a tier credit. One player posted that he had played for quite a while switching between video poker paytables on one machine, had earned a good number of points, and had earned very few tier credits. That's when he learned about tier credit progress resetting to zero.

My cousin got bitten by this "feature" of the new club. We needed to earn, say, 10 tier credits to get a box of cookies. She only played slots (and slots earned tier credits at $5 per), so it was easy to figure out that if she played 50 points she would earn the 10 tier credits needed.

But she had switched machines when her point total was not divisible by 5. Even though she had earned 50 points, she had only 9 tier credits.

The system still works this way, as far as I know. I haven't done any tests to see if it has changed.

Some of the casinos that used the Acres system were Mandalay Bay and Stations Casinos. Some of the machines in Red Rock casino still have stickers about various promotions tied to the Acres system, Acres Advantage.

IGT bought this Acres company. If your video poker machine reboots and you see a message about IGT Advantage Player, it doesn't mean that the machine is loading software to identify advantage players. It just means that the machine is loading the player tracking module of the IGT Advantage system. It's [IGT Advantage] Player, not IGT [Advantage Player].

Acres has formed a new company and its player-tracking system, Acres Foundation, will be able to help casinos deal with the Advantage Player problem.

Slot machines have gotten chattier over the past three decades. Early player tracking systems and progressive controllers kept track of how much was played by intercepting pulses sent to the internal meter that incremented with each coin played. Today the computer inside the slot machine can share much more data with the central computer and the central computer can send more data to the machine. You can Google "SAS protocol" to find more information. Just be sure to ignore the entries for Serial Attached SCSI, which is something completely different. There is also a competing protocol called G2S (Game to System).

According the Acres site, the Foundation system "captures and reports a machine's entire SAS report on every spin." The Review-Journal article linked above answers the question about what can be done with all that data.

For openers, it can help a casino company learn even more than it knows now about its customers. More important, casinos can do something proactively if they sense that players are becoming unhappy with their losses.

"I can detect when you’re becoming unhappy and I can either send an employee out to talk to you, I can send a message to your phone, I could put a message on the slot machine screen," Noah Acres said. "The message might be something like, 'Hey, for the next 10 minutes, we’ll double all your pays.' It could be, 'Here’s 20 bucks of free money.' It could be a free drink coupon. It could be anything. It's up to the casino what they want to do. But the fact is, right now, the casinos can’t measure an experience in real time and they can’t do anything about it and now we’re giving them the tools to do both."

Sounds all rainbows and puppy dog tails until the next paragraph.

The system does that by monitoring play. On video poker machines, for example, it can determine if a player makes mistakes in basic strategy. Rather than see a player quit or go to a rival casino for a change in luck, managers monitoring play can be proactive in how they approach the customer.

The flip side of determining if a player makes mistakes in basic strategy is determining that a player doesn't make mistakes.

A new product created by Acres Manufacturing will make it easier for gaming operators to identify advantage players. The Optimal Poker Analyzer not only identifies and tracks advantage players but allows casinos to offer casual video poker players benefits that match their level of play.

Acres envisions casino operators being able to increase offers to high margin (or casual players) while reducing offers to low margin, or advantage, players.

"Casinos have to protect themselves against advantage players," [Noah] Acres says. "The regular players are the ones who pay the price."

Acres Manufacturing’s poker analyzer helps operators ID advantage players

Protect against advantage players? Really? In 2021? If there are opportunities out there that a casino feels it should spend I-don't-know how many dollars to protect itself against players who know what they're doing and can get a significant advantage over the casino, I sure would like to know about them.

In the six years I've been in Las Vegas, I've seen NSU machines disappear, video poker go from 1 dollar earning 1 point to 2 dollars earning 1 point, the advantage on NSU on multiplier days go from $30 per $10,000 played to $20, and the ability to play NSU at breakeven every day go away.

Casinos have already dealt with correlating benefits with a player's theoretical worth. Long gone are the days that Bob Dancer wrote about when casinos would give unbelievable perks to players playing positive expectation video poker or devise promotions that gave players a percent or more advantage.

When I told Anthony Curtis that I was flagged as an advantage player at a casino, he said, "How much damage can a dollar video poker player do?" Even multiplied by 100 or more, I would add.

I've never seen a footnote in an annual report that said that a loss was due to advantage video poker play. A lucky whale at Baccarat, yes, but not advantage players playing dollar video poker.

Casinos have also limited the profitability of playing positive expectation paytables by offering them in low denominations only, by increasing the amount of play required to earn a point (if you can even earn points on them), and by setting them to deal very s.l.o.w.l.y, thereby decreasing the number of hands one can play per hour AND how much one can earn per hour.

Casino accountants can count their beans and tell me I'm wrong, but I suspect that advantage play today is not much more than a rounding error on a monthly Profit and Loss statement. I don't think they really know, though, because they can only see how much a person has played on a particular paytable, when they played (Only on multiple points days?), and how much they've won or lost. They don't know whether a loser was skilled and unlucky or a winner had no clue what he was doing and was lucky. They have to infer advantage play from a player's results because they can't measure performance separate from the luck of the draw.

Well, at least not until now.

Maybe there's no reason to be concerned. Acres did say the system could be used to increase offers to casual players. So the casino would be able to give better offers to the NSU player who was attracted by the "99.8% or better" sign above the machines and is playing based on hunches than the player who has memorized a strategy chart. Instead of basing offers on paytable alone, offers can be based on paytable and player skill level. Will the data be used just to give better rewards to players who play the best paytables poorly?

I have a question. Are there enough instances in which the proper hold goes against the cards you would hold on a hunch to be able to reliably determine that a player is an advantage player?


Here are the latest figures from https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_totalcases.

Totals Weekly Increases
US NV US NV
Date Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths 
 08/17   36,951,181   620,493   373,649   6,190   959,978   4,715   7,065   150 
 08/10   35,991,203   615,778   366,584   6,040   819,524   3,987   7,652   122 
 08/03   35,171,679   611,791   358,932   5,918   622,832   2,279   7,489   81 
 07/27   34,548,847   609,012   351,443   5,837   652,251   2,394   8,347   79 
 07/20   33,896,296   606,618   341,096   5,758   169,933   1,478   3,351   28 
 07/13   33,726,363   605,140   339,745   5,730   181,047   1,959   4,982   33 
 07/06   33,545,316   603,181   334,763   5,697   75,104   1,373   2,234   27 
 06/29   33,470,212   601,808   332,529   5,670   87,507   2,057   3,020   24 
 06/22   33,382,705   599,751   329,509   5,646   75,420   2,157   1,930   22 
 06/15   33,303,285   597,594   327,579   5,624   95,797   2,293   1,560   17 
 06/08   33,207,488   595,301   326,019   5,607   114,250   3,762   2,271   21 
 06/01   33,039,238   591,539   323,748   5,586   123,333   3,709   991   27 
 05/25   32,969,905   587,830   322,757   5,559   174,125   4,234   1,676   26 
 05/18   32,795,780   583,596   321,081   5,533   223,966   4,230   2,301   27 
 05/11   32,571,814   579,366   318,780   5,506   303,856   4,687   2,541   33 
 05/04   32,267,958   574,679   316,239   5,473   343,348   4,908   2,559   40 
 04/27   31,924,610   569,771   313,680   5,433   383,163   4,958   2,747   65 
 04/20   31,541,447   564,813   310,933   5,368   464,556   5,072   2,590   36 
 04/13   31,076,891   559,741   308,343   5,332   480,061   5,321   2,986   57 
 04/06   30,596,830   554,420   305,357   5,275   448,935   7,124   3,084   38 
 03/30   30,147,895   547,296   302,273   5,237   439,510   6,793   939   63 
 03/23   29,708,385   540,503   301,334   5,174   388,928   7,446   1,863   53 
 03/16   29,319,457   533,057   299,471   5,121   381,695   8,362   3,078   81 
 03/09   28,937,762   524,695   296,393   5,040   480,902   11,573   2,413   83 
 03/02   28,456,860   513,122   293,980   4,957   463,356   14,129   2,835   75 
 02/23   27,993,504   498,993   291,145   4,882   451,083   13,923   2,406   162 
 02/16   27,542,421   485,070   288,739   4,720   602,906   21,411   4,149   198 
 02/09   26,939,515   463,659   284,590   4,522   779,305   21,828   5,444   244 
 02/02   26,160,210   441,831   279,146   4,278   1,007,777   22,004   7,249   249 
 01/26   25,152,433   419,827   271,897   4,029   1,312,565   23,385   10,324   250 
 01/19   23,839,868   396,442   261,573   3,779   1,317,119   21,318   11,324   279 
 01/12   22,522,749   375,124   250,249   3,500   1,790,345   22,660   17,217   294 
 01/05    20,732,404   352,464   233,032   3,206   1,499,561   18,435   14,655   233 
 12/29   19,232,843   334,029   218,377   2,973   1,258,540   15,460   12,493   186 
 12/22   17,974,303   318,569   205,884   2,787   1,656,411   18,537   16,472   239 
 12/15   16,317,892   300,032   189,412   2,548   1,494,763   17,247   18,825   229 
 12/08   14,823,129   282,785   170,587   2,319   1,375,502   15,483   18,418   175 
 12/01   13,447,627   267,302   152,169   2,144   1,114,175   10,286   15,942   121 
 11/24   12,333,452   257,016   136,227   2,023   1,197,199   10,784   14,130   106 
 11/17   11,136,253   246,232   122,097   1,917   1,099,790   8,501   11,115   65 
 11/10   10,036,463   237,731   110,982   1,852   767,645   6,838   8,868   68 
 11/03   9,268,818   230,893   102,114   1,784   588,207   5,809   5,936   35 
 10/27   8,680,611   225,084   96,178   1,749   492,026   5,585   5,238   (10) 
 10/20   8,188,585   219,499   90,940   1,759   401,037   5,053   4,501   48 
 10/13   7,787,548   214,446   86,439   1,711   351,270   4,886   3,910   48 
 10/06   7,436,278   209,560   82,529   1,663   306,965   4,962   3,232   36 
 09/29   7,129,313   204,598   79,297   1,627   303,616   5,136   3,058   54 
 09/22   6,825,697   199,462   76,239   1,573   288,070   5,370   2,196   82 
 09/15   6,537,627   194,092   72,043   1,491   250,265   5,404   1,825   65 
 09/08   6,287,362   188,688   72,218   1,426   282,919   5,638   2,734   92 
 09/01   6,004,443   183,050   69,484   1,334   251,790   5,291   3,237   104 
 08/25   5,752,653   177,759   66,247   1,230   330,411   7,889   4,076   125 
 08/18   5,422,242   169,870   62,171   1,105   358,071   7,463   4,973   114 
 08/11   5,064,171   162,407   57,198   991   365,353   7,203   5,776   117 
 08/04   4,698,818   155,204   51,422   874   418,683   7,532   7,367   109 
 07/28   4,280,135   147,672   44,055   764   460,996   7,042   7,130   91 
 07/21   3,819,139  140,630  36,195  674  463,682  5,395  8,181  57 
 07/14   3,355,457   135,235   28,744   617   422,861   5,102   5,607   57 
 07/07   2,932,596   130,133   23,137   560   351,367   3,394   5,006   24 
 06/30   2,581,229   126,739   18,131   536   278,941   6,406   4,367   26 
 06/23   2,302,288   120,333   13,764   510 
John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots